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The N-Word and the NFL

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The NFL is on the verge of considering whether or not they should be in the business of legislating words that are racially offensive. If the NFL were to institute a rule that outlaws usage of the N-word or any racial slur on the football field, at the very least the league would be guilty of two things: (1) Instituting a rule designed to protect white privilege and (2) Being self-righteously hypocritical.

The inspiration for the creation of this prospective rule was the incident between a referee and a player when that player was called the N-word by the referee according to John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, which monitors diversity in the NFL. Both player and referee involved in the incident were African American. Why that matters is because there were a total of three major incidents surrounding use of the N-word this NFL season; the other two involved white players -- Riley Cooper and Richie Incognito -- using the word in a derogatory manner towards African Americans. Few would argue that Cooper and Incognito weren't wrong for using the word the way they did. But the action of those two men was not the impetus for the NFL ready to create this rule; an exchange between two black men was.

For many African Americans, the N-word is a part of their vernacular language. I cannot account for other racial/ethnic groups, but historically, racial/ethnic groups have used racially insensitive and derogatory slurs in endearing ways. African Americans are no different. However, the N-word was created out of ignorance due to the poor pronunciation practices of Europeans and then turned into a tool of economic and political oppression, and the dehumanization of a people. Nevertheless, the term was thrust upon us and whether or not folks like it, it belongs to us (African Americans) for better or for worse. There is no "acceptable use policy" for white people to use the N-word, under any circumstances with a black person. When a white person uses that word, it is usually in a derogatory manner because historically, that is the only way a white person has ever used it. African Americans have taken the term and redefined and made it part of the African American vernacular.

Some white people don't think that is fair, that if African Americans can use it, so can white people -- as a term of endearment. The commodification and mainstreaming of the N-word by African Americans in artistic circles i.e., music, literature and comedy, does not give whites or other non-African Americans license to use it; nor does it give whites the power to legislate its use. It is a safe bet that if this prospective rule becomes law, the majority of people flagged for violation of it will be African American, if for no other reason than due to their majority population in the league. The racial composition of the owners and one commissioner is 99.9 percent older white male. This prospective rule plays out the wish of many white people who identify themselves as well-intentioned and well meaning: if white people cannot say the N-word under any circumstances, no one else can either. The very idea that white people can control usage of a derogatory term is a display of white privilege. When the inherent privilege of whites is taken away, there will be some who will fight hard to maintain it. White people who argue against African Americans using the N-word contending that blacks are guilty of the same racism that whites have been indicted with are only interested in maintaining their own white privilege. This rule emboldens whites who assert their privilege over use of the N-word.

Throughout American history, the relationship between whites and blacks has been one of oppression through control. The historical relationship between whites and Native Americans, it has always been one of oppression through conquest and disregard. How the NFL can consider instituting a rule designed to penalize usage of any racial slur and fail to even consider removing a racially offensive term as the name of one of its teams is self-righteously hypocritical. Daniel Snyder's fierce declaration to never change the name and Roger Goddell's approval of the name is another exercise of white privilege. It is a complete takeover of a phrase that capitalizes on the displeasure of others. Roger Goddell's assertion that 9 out of 10 Native Americans approval of the "Redskins" name is no different than he, or the NFL owners, citing the generation of African Americans who abhor the N-word as their basis and justification for legislating usage of the N-word.

There are policies designed to address racial intolerance and racial insensitivity in the NFL. If a player is offended by the usage of the N-word or any racial slur heard in the field of play or in the locker room, that individual can file a grievance with the team and/or the league office. If a player feels harassed by an individual who calls them the N-word or any racial slur in an offensive manner, that player can file harassment charges against that individual with the league offices. If a player, coach or referee uses the N-word or any racial slur on the field and it is found out, they can be fined and/or suspended by the league. However, the only remedy to the atrocity committed against Native Americans for 16 weeks is to change the name of the Washington franchise: something the NFL refuses to do. In both cases, the NFL is displaying their power and privilege over names and naming rights. That power means even more when you've ascribed a name to a people and use it as you wish. The NFL has pushed the cries of Native Americans to the reservation and is on the verge of quieting the voices on the billion dollar plantation called the football field... all in the name of the shield.